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Building Bridges: Uniting a diversity of actors to end the sexual exploitation of vulnerable people

The right to be free from exploitation is a basic human right. Despite this, millions of women, girls, and other vulnerable people around the world are being sexually exploited. It is our collective responsibility to ensure everybody is able to live safe, fearless and free. 

Sexual exploitation is a form of sexual abuse

Sexual exploitation is when someone abuses or attempts to abuse another person’s vulnerability or their position of power or trust for sexual purposes. They may make money, political, personal, or social gains through this exploitation or benefit in other ways.

Sexual exploitation occurs on a continuum that includes many forms of coercion and predatory actions, including trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation.

Discrimination and inequality leave people vulnerable to exploitation

We do not live in an equal society. We live in a patriarchy, which is inherently unequal.

Women, girls, LGBTQ+ people, marginalized racial, ethnic, and socially excluded communities, and migrants disproportionately experience gender and sex inequality and discrimination. They also are disproportionately affected by the consequent intersecting inequalities arising from poverty, class, race, and other factors. This leaves them at greater risk of sexual exploitation.

Ever-increasing connectivity brought on by the internet and technology, and online anonymity are making it easier for exploiters to groom, recruit, and sexually exploit with impunity. This anonymity, as well as very limited regulation, enables exploiters to easily come into contact with potential victims.

People who exploit or attempt to exploit others are directly or indirectly taking advantage of these intersecting vulnerabilities for the sake of their own sexual gratification, entitlement, and often profit.

The law is vital to combating trafficking and exploitation

Equality Now exists to protect and promote the rights of women and girls. We have worked for almost thirty years to end human trafficking for sexual exploitation.

In 2001, we led a coalition for the passage of the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children (known as the Palermo Protocol). Through the protocol, states committed to putting in place national laws and other measures and working together to end human trafficking.

We continue to call for the effective implementation of the Palermo Protocol and other international laws and standards, including Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Beijing Platform for Action, that each demand an end to sexual exploitation.

But, as the problem of sexual exploitation expands and morphs, we recognize that we need to find additional and innovative ways to approach it.

Building alliances to tackle sexual exploitation

More recently our work has seen us working with our partners to build alliances with a diverse range of stakeholders and collectively respond to the mechanisms and power differentials that enable sexual exploitation and facilitate the impunity of exploiters.

In Kenya, with local organizations, we are advocating that the government strengthens and implements laws that impact trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation and sexual exploitation in travel and tourism. Through strategic litigation, we are ensuring that women and girls get justice, that the Kenyan justice system is holding the full range of exploiters in the exploitation chain to account, and that the government is fulfilling its obligation to prevent sexual exploitation and protect survivors.

In the UK, we are engaging with a range of organizations working across sectors including youth, homelessness, LGBTQ+, domestic violence, migrant status, and experience with the criminal justice system. Together we are building a holistic understanding of how laws and policies across the UK facilitate sexual exploitation and where the accountability lies. Emerging issues include how challenges within housing and welfare policies are leaving women vulnerable to ‘sex-for-rent’. We see tremendous opportunity to come together as a broad coalition and call on the government to accept responsibility for leaving people vulnerable to sexual exploitation due to its laws and policies and hold to account people who exploit others’ vulnerabilities.

The growing threat of online exploitation

We are increasingly working with global platforms to address online sexual exploitation, which presents complex challenges particularly when perpetrators and victims are in different jurisdictions. In many countries, legislation, law enforcement, and awareness have failed to keep up with the negative impacts of the internet and the challenges it brings. Other countries have either not yet prioritized the threat, or they have limited resources to invest in infrastructure or safeguards to protect children and vulnerable adults.

The global nature of the internet means that this is a global problem that requires urgent and harmonized responses from the international community. The momentum of this crime is overtaking efforts to stop it, and finding effective solutions is becoming ever-more urgent. We will continue to engage governments, international bodies, tech companies, civil society, and survivors to come together to develop stronger and coordinated legal, policy, and technological solutions. These solutions must address the misuse of technology and harness its useful potential to address this crime.

Together we must protect and promote everyone’s right to live free from exploitation

Ending sexual exploitation requires a comprehensive approach based on human rights and gender equality. States must take into account that vulnerabilities arise from inequality and discrimination and seek to address this through law and policy.

Anyone who has been exploited should be protected from harm and should never be criminalized.

Laws and policies must aim to achieve substantive equality by:

  • Addressing vulnerability through equality in the law, with particular attention to gender equality 
  • Resourcing a strong social welfare state
  • Ensuring accountability for those are responsible for or are enabling exploiters to continue to act with impunity, e.g. child protection in schools or and tech companies protecting vulnerable users
  • Ensuring accountability for those who would sexually harass, abuse, assault or exploit
  • Providing holistic support for people who are exploited or abused, including opportunities to recover

Together these policies reduce people’s vulnerability to being sexually exploited to meet their own basic needs.

We will continue to focus our efforts on protecting and promoting the rights of women and girls. We will also continue to build solidarity with a diversity of other actors as together we seek to end the sexual exploitation of all people. We must identify the laws, legal practices, and policies that allow sexual exploitation to continue with impunity. We must then commit to change them.

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